Thursday, April 11, 2019


Mats Malm, Sigrid Schottenius Cullhed (ed.), Reading Late Antiquity. The Library of the other Antiquity. Bibliothek der klassischen Altertumswissenschaften, 156. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 2018. Pp. 267. ISBN 9783825367879. €48,00.

Reviewed by Bram van der Velden, Leiden University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

It has become a tired trope to say that scholarship on Late Antiquity is blooming. The same can be said for scholarship on the reception of the ancient world. However, as the editors of this volume note in their introduction, the two are rarely combined: studies on the reception of the Late Antique world are rare.

In a way, this is to be expected. Scholars of reception and scholars of Late Antiquity face the same problem: they cannot always expect their readers to be familiar with their topic already. Much time needs to be spent on the introduction and contextualization of their material, often at the expense of analysis and abstraction. In this light, someone writing on the reception of a non-canonical Late Antique author in a non-canonical later author for an audience of 'ordinary classicists' faces a thankless task indeed. For that reason, the editors are to be thanked for this thought-provoking book, which not only contains a great number of interesting case studies, but also has more general things to say.

The volume consists of three distinct parts: 'Theoretical Outlooks' (chapters by Uden, Formisano, and Hernández Lobato), 'Decadence and Decline' (chapters by Heilo, McGill, Rebenich, Schottenius Cullhed, Harich-Schwarzbauer, and Tommasi), and 'Continuities and Transformations' (chapters by Putter, Westberg, Bodin, and Conybeare). These three parts are preceded by an introduction, which embeds the present volume within earlier scholarly works and introduces important themes throughout the book.

In 'Theoretical Outlooks', Uden discusses the concept of 'untimeliness' as it relates to Late Antiquity, with the help of various forms of reception of the Pervigilium Veneris. Formisano analyses the concepts of 'fragments', 'allegory' and 'anachronicity' through the lens of Walter Benjamin's works and that of Claudian's De raptu. Hernández Lobato, finally, argues that aspects of post-modern linguistic thinking are prefigured in Late Antique texts. It is clear that these scholars have spent a great deal of time thinking about their texts, and the new approaches in these articles will surely be of use to many scholars.

Fundamental in this section is the question of the 'uniqueness' or 'defining qualities' of Late Antique literature. Later readers have, of course, often described Late Antique texts in terms of generalities, which undoubtably stem from the impossibility of reading them all in detail. The articles in this section dispense with the idea that Late Antique texts can simply be classified as 'decadent' and 'bad', but they do not reject the assumption that some generalities can be used profitably to discuss Late Antique literature as a corpus. Formisano, for instance, suggests that Late Antique literature has 'strange qualities which make it in many respects distant from classical textuality' (p. 33). Hernández Lobato remarks that 'Late Antiquity was in a sense the "linguistic turn" of the Ancient world' (p.53). This stress on the 'innateness' of certain aesthetic characteristics of Late Antiquity is not new,1 although, of course, the opposite case might be argued too. It could be seen as prima facie unlikely that a range of textual output which has nothing in common except for the fact that it was written in roughly the same time period, can be analysed with the help of the same aesthetic principles. 2 Moreover, the parallel of the history of the scholarship of so-called 'Silver Latin' might give us pause when thinking about the usefulness of these general labels.3 The debate will very likely continue in further publications.

I see only one slight problem with this section: the Late Antique texts which receive the most attention in it (the Pervigilium Veneris, Claudian's De raptu and Augustine's Confessiones) are all well-known. In their introduction, the editors state that 'Reception Studies that focus almost exclusively on well-known writers from the classical period can lead to further perpetuation of the established canon and thereby prevent new knowledge about the Nachleben of ancient culture in its wider sense' (p. 9). The question, however, is whether the recent 'Late Antique explosion' is not on its way to creating a similar 'later' canon, thereby perpetuating the same problems. Instead, an analysis of, say, Nonnus' Paraphrase of the Gospel of John or Tiberius Claudius Donatus' commentary on the Aeneid, would not only have been a welcome change, but also an interesting way of truly testing the universality of the claims about Late Antique textuality. To be fair, Hernández Lobato does provide a list of 'novel epiphenomena which are better explained as a result of this paradigm shift [sc. the linguistic turn–VdV] and its underlying episteme' (p. 53), in which he includes a whole set of ancient texts, but he does not expand on this list. The focus of the rest of the book is broader, however.

The second part of the volume, entitled 'Decadence and Decline', provides six very different case studies on the ways in which the perceived deterioration of culture in Late Antiquity served useful in supporting later narratives of decline. It focuses mostly (though not exclusively) on the late-nineteenth century decadentist movement.

Heilo interestingly compares Jacob Burckhardt's well-known Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860) with the lesser-known Die Zeit des Constantins der Grossen (1853). This analysis reveals a paradox: cultural manifestations which Burckhardt sees as indicative of decline in Late Antiquity suddenly become positive elements in his reading of Renaissance Italy. This paradox can be explained, according to Heilo, by Burckhardt's special interest in the Renaissance as a parallel for the Reformation, and by his especial interest in Renaissance art and literature.

Des Esseintes, the protagonist of Joris-Karl Huysman's novel À rebours (1884), adopts an unusual way of library classification. One section of his bookshelves, containing Late Latin texts, is classified 'The Decadence'. In his chapter, McGill analyses how Late Latin functions as 'counter-cultural' within the confines of this novel: the language and themes of e.g. Lucan, Petronius, Apuleius and Claudian are presented as explicitly 'non-classical' and therefore to the liking of the contrarian main character.

We return to the world of scholarship on the Late Antique World with the contribution of Rebenich. It focuses on the state of German Altertumswissenschaften at the start of the twentieth century. Scholars at that time often considered the mammoth-sized scholarly endeavors of the preceding generation as relativist, antiquarian, and completely detached from reality, and searched for ways to re-infuse historiography with theory and normativity. The decline of the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity often played a role in their works, because it was seen as a parallel for the alleged decline of the West in their own time.

Particularly illuminating and methodologically interesting is the contribution of Schottenius Cullhed, which does not simply take one 'reception act' as its starting point. Instead, it traces the various ways in which one text, Rutilius Namatianus' De reditu suo, is used in a variety of contexts, including those which a modern reader might find disconcerting. The reader is taken all the way up to Boris Johnson's 2006 quotation of the 'hymn to Rome' as part of his views on the future of the EU, and the events that would follow.

The chapter written by Harich-Schwarzbauer is devoted to Der heilige Palast (1922), a novel published by Alma Johanna Koenig. The novel has as its main character Theodora, the empress of the Eastern Roman Empire. Harich- Schwarzbauer shows how the perceived luxuriousness of the Byzantine Empire is both of interest and repugnant to Koenig, and devotes particular attention to her deviations from Procopius' account.

Tommasi takes the reader to yet another avenue of the reception of the Byzantine empire, the world of opera. Her main point of focus, La Fiamma (1934) by Respighi and Guastalla, is set in Byzantine Ravenna but based on a play set in 16th-century Norway. Tommasi helpfully unpacks the different overtones the Byzantine setting brings to the fore: decadence and visual preciousness set against the backdrop of religious controversy. Particularly impressive in this contribution is the extensive bibliography provided.

The third part of this volume, 'Continuities and Transformation', focuses on case studies in which the perceived 'degeneration' of Late Antiquity is not felt as present or even explicitly denied. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this section is much more preoccupied with the reception of Christian Late Antiquity than the previous two.

Putter's chapter, 'Versifications of the Book of Jonah', argues that the storm in the story of Jonah provided Late Antique and Medieval Biblical versifiers with a means of aligning their works with previous epic works in which similar storm scenes played a role. The close readings from Medieval poets provided by Putter show parallels with previous Late Antique reworkings of the theme, such the Carmen de Iona or Avitus' Carmina de spiritalis historiae gestis, although it is still an open question whether there the intertextual links are direct.

Westberg interprets John Doukas' twelfth-century description of a pilgrimage in the Holy Land as having a Late Antique intertextual layer: many passages are based on a speech by the sixth-century rhetorician Chorikios. It would be anachronistic, according to Westberg, to call this form of imitation a form of 'theft'. Instead, he analyses the intertexts as providing aesthetic pleasure to the educated audience, and as reminding them of the 'Greekness' of contemporary Palestine.

Bodin's contribution introduces a text which will not be familiar to many readers, Göran Tunström's novel The Thief (1986), in which the Late Antique Codex Argenteus plays an important role. Late Antiquity is 'received' in many other ways in this novel: its author shows himself to be interested in a variety of other Late Antique texts, including—again —Procopius, but also specifically in Late Antique writing techniques.

Conybeare, finally, audaciously juxtaposes Augustine's Confessiones and Edward Said's autobiographical Out of Place. This reading seems far-fetched at first, but it is made in a very convincing manner: Conybeare argues that Said definitely knew Augustine's text and that it may have served him as a means to thinking about identity and displacement.

Having read this volume, every reader will walk away with a newly-acquired knowledge of a variety of forms of receptions of the Late Antique world. The contributions in this volume are written in a pleasant and crisp style, and the book seems to have been proofread very well. Reading Late Antiquity provides an exciting impetus to a field which has much to offer for further investigations into the topic.


1.   Roberts' 1989 seminal The Jeweled Style should, of course, be mentioned. McGill on p. 85 of this volume usefully contextualizes this work within earlier scholarship.
2.   Formisano on p. 39 makes a distinction between classicists for whom 'late antique poetry works exactly like classical poetry', and those for whom 'late antique textuality must be considered on its own terms'. One wonders whether a middle road would be possible.
3.   For the reception of Late Antique Latin poetry as parallel to that of 'Silver Latin', cf. S. McGill (2012), 'Latin Poetry', in S. F. Johnson(ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity, Oxford etc.: OUP, pp. 335–60; p. 335.

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